Colombo, Jan 13 : Pope Francis on Tuesday called for respect of human rights and healing of racial and religious hatred as he arrived on a two-day visit to Sri Lanka, days after a new government assumed power in the country. He became the first foreign dignitary to be received by the island nation's newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena at the Colombo International Airport.
78-year-old Francis' visit comes at the start of a week long Asian tour, aiming to bring a message of inter- religious and inter-ethnic harmony to Sri Lanka. "Diversity is no longer seen as a threat but as a source of enrichment. The path to justice, reconciliation and social harmony becomes all the more clearly seen," Francis said.
The visit is the first Papal visit to Sri Lanka since January 1995. "The great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs but also and even more importantly promoting human dignity. Respect for human rights and the full inclusion of each member of society," he said.
The Vatican in the recent times have been critical of attacks against religious minorities under the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Addressing the Pope, Sirisena said his government aims to promote peace and friendship among communities.
"We are a people who believe in religious tolerance and coexistence based on our centuries of religious heritage" Sirisena said. He will receive the Pope this evening on an official call. Pope's pubic mass will take place tomorrow morning and will later travel to the historic Madu church in the north eastern district of Mannar.
The Pope will also visit Tamil territory to pray at a shrine beloved by both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful. The invitation for the visit was made by Mahinda Rajapaksa. The pope went ahead with his visit despite the change of government following snap polls.
During his visit, the Pope is expected to call for greater dialogue among people of different faiths. There were apprehensions that a messy electoral outcome might have thrown the papal's visit into doubt but Rajapakse graciously conceded defeat that was welcomed by Sirisena.
On Thursday he will lead for the Philippines, the largest Roman Catholic country in Asia and the third-largest in the world, for the final leg of the journey. Catholics account for around six per cent of the population in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka.